Commentary

The brawn, and beauty, of Rafael Nadal

He has learned how to turn Roger Federer's classic strengths to his advantage

Originally Published: June 6, 2011
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

"Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform -- and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled."

-- David Foster Wallace

I still don't know what I saw Sunday. Roger Federer missed a drop shot by the thickness of a sheet of paper; three hours later, Rafael Nadal became the greatest tennis player who ever lived.

Or he did not.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
AP Photo/Lionel CironneauRafael Nadal won another French Open cup, this time by out-Federering Roger Federer.

Some thoughts today on the confusions of greatness.

Five years ago when the late David Foster Wallace wrote this, Federer was the best tennis player in the world by almost every measure. Two years ago when I wrote this, it was still possible to consider Nadal and Federer equals and opposites, brawn versus intellect, violence versus music. But as the shadows lengthened into night in Paris on Sunday, it became clear that this is no longer true.

Given every chance, Federer cannot beat Nadal. Because Nadal has become Federer.

He has adapted, improved, evolved. Somehow, Nadal has made his game beautiful. Where there was once only slug and grunt and run, Nadal's poetry is now as tough and supple as anything the game has ever seen. Once thought of as nothing but la brute, a player even DFW disdained as a muscle-bound baseliner preening in a sleeveless tee, Nadal has continually remade himself in the game. He plays smarter, subtler angles, both off the groundstroke and on his serve, and softens his attack in the manner of a judo master turning an opponent's energy back on itself. Whereas he used to shy from the net as though it were an electric fence, he now slides with confidence and purpose. Like an intelligent machine out of science fiction, he learned these things from Federer in order to destroy him.

Always physically stronger than Federer, especially on clay, and with an incrementally sharper killer's instinct, Nadal on Sunday reduced Federer's greatness to a polite topic of conversation by embracing subtlety. What was once, as David put it, a battle between Mozart and Metallica, is now, in Nadal, the triumphant synthesis of the two.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
AP Photo/Lionel CironneauOnce the undisputed best, Federer's place in history is now only a part of that discussion.

By itself, even this is only moderately interesting. Every champion must be overtaken. Even the greatest of them. But for the rest of us to have seen these careers overlap, to watch these men playing head-to-head in the same age, is a rare gift of history.

But just as it is in art, in sports there is no entirely reliable measure of greatness. Our heroes are always more mythology than math. Who of these two is greater? And by what standard? Slams? Streaks? Total wins? Money earned?

If Nadal's body breaks down before he can equal or surpass the number of Slams won by Federer, does that mean he's the lesser of the two? Having won all those Slams but having lost so often to Nadal, is Federer the smaller man?

The dismal arithmetic of statistics is useless here.

Ask yourself instead: Am I changed by having seen them? Am I changed by having known them? Have they inspired me? Reconciled me to my own humanity?

And to those of us who still ask those same things of the work and the memory of David Foster Wallace, gone without goodbye, his friend the novelist Jonathan Franzen has this. Find it in full where you can and brace yourself against its candor and its love.

Because history is the same for writers, it turns out. Greatness or failure is measured by the page, by the thickness of a single sheet of paper.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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